Post title image: The Case Against The Big Company Offsite

The Case Against The Big Company Offsite

Why we only do stays for individuals and small teams at Ashore.

The Future of Work

At Ashore, our focus is on providing the best possible spaces for people to focus on their most important, most creative work.

As part of that, we have what we call the two two rule: no Ashore location sleeps more than two two-pizza teams.

As a result we max out at around fifteen employees, and importantly, don't offer all-company offsites (unless your company is smaller than fifteen, meaning you get the best of all worlds).

Many of the companies we work with do annual company offsites, and when it comes to building the social fabric of a company, they can be brilliant.

But when it comes to getting away and focussing on doing important, strategic work, we think there are three problems with relying on an annual retreat to do that kind of heavy lifting.

Problem one: too big.

First, the size of an all-company offsite often means that there’s just too many people to get great work done.

It’s the big strategic thinking, the fast execution on a key product, the way of solving a problem that no one had seen before, that really delivers the co-location bang for buck.

Believe us, we’ve seen it: from pivots, successful raises, quarterly plans, pivots, and new marketing directions.

It’s why our north star metric is whether each team that stays with us comes away from their stay having radically moved the needle on something that matters.

But to do that kind of work you need to keep it small.

Kelly Johnson, the father of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, and the person responsible for designing and delivering the first US jet fighter, had 14 rules of management, with rule number three being:

“The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people”

We’ve all been there, in a meeting where there’s too many people, one or two are engaged, the rest are zoned out. The bigger the group, the harder it is to generate ownership.

Without the ability to do the work, what’s left is socialising. That’s not to mean it isn’t important, but we think it’s important to see time spent away together first and foremost as a performance tool.

Six is for work. Sixty is a party.

Problem two: too irregular.

Second, the scale, planning and effort involving a large company offsite generally limits it to happening once a year.

This is too irregular - particularly for remote-first companies - not only to maximise the power of co-located working to get great work done, but to help employees build genuine relationships.

To understand this, it’s important to remember that it’s normally in the moments beyond structure that people get to know each other.

A recent study found that a key driver of increased interaction between two employees after a company offsite was less the offsite, but more whether they took a - randomly assigned - taxi journey to the offsite together beforehand.

It’s the reason why friend of Ashore, Rory Sutherland, once jokingly suggested:

“If you want to form a highly collaborative team, just book your subordinates on a Eurostar junket to Paris, then forget to confirm their return tickets. Trust me, not only will they be newly united in a shared disdain for your organisational skills, but the four hours they’re forced to spend together in Five Guys at the Gare du Nord will forge bonds otherwise found only in the SAS or Navy Seals.”

Though the Ashore Gare du Nord special isn’t on our roadmap just yet, it’s a good way to understand the limits of the big-bang approach.

By going once a year, you miss the chance to build team relationships over time, meaning the less chance the team gets together and does its best, most authentic work.

Problem three: too long.

Finally, offsites are too long. often as a result of the fact that they’re once a year, there’s no other opportunity for people to get together otherwise.

This is tricky for a few reasons. First, there’s a limit on the amount of time one can spend doing focussed, productive work. Do your thinking in fast short bursts, and then get moving on executing.

Second, life happens. Particularly if you have team members with families - a full working week is a long time.

There’s a big opportunity cost here to justify, so narrowing the scope and reducing the number of days can really help.

In particular, this avoids the risk of different people arriving and leaving at different times. You want everyone in the team together if you can, working as one.

The search for a middle ground.

Given the limits of the company offsite, some companies have been experimenting with a few models, with the aim of finding a middle-ground between the large company offsite and day-to-day work.

This is where we believe the future lies: what, borrowing from a recent paper by Dr Anthony Diercks, might best be described as “cluster hybrid.”

In this system teams are free to work how they wish, but come together regularly throughout the year (Diercks suggests every six or so weeks in his paper) to work on their most important, most creative, work.

For example, at Automattic, employees work remotely, but have a highly structured system of meetups throughout the year - for not only individual teams, but teams of teams too.

Airbnb, Shopify, Buffer, Basecamp all do similar things (albeit usually with different names: for example Shopify call them bursts).

Another version of this comes from Dropbox: they operate according to a 90:10 rule, where 90% of an employee’s working year is spent remotely, with 10% in get-togethers.

When you look at the best in the business who do this already, you see three things.

They meet up regularly. They keep it small. And they keep it focussed on work.

It's in the world these teams operate in that we exist: the gap between the ordinary day-to-day and he big team offsite.

Facilitating team-time spent in a dedicated place, to focus on solving their most important problems, and building their most important stuff.

If in doubt, JFDI.

We’re obviously biased - but if you’re reading this and thinking about going away for a small, focussed, team stay - the best advice is to not overthink it, and just do it. just to book an Ashore, try it out, and see if it's a fit for you and your team.

To make it even easier, it’s useful to latch onto an existing behaviour within your company first, such as quarterly leadership meetings, or regular cofounder gatherings, and start from there.

It’s like going to the gym - you never regret it. And if things go wrong, you’ll find a way.

If you want to use an Ashore location - take a look at our 40+ homes here, or just drop a message in the chat to speak to one of the team.

Or if you're thinking about a first step and want some thoughts or advice, just drop me a message and I’ll be happy to help out. 

Alternatively, just take Rory’s advice. You can get your one-way Eurostar tickets here.

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